April 7, 1942
Lieutenant Kiyoshinge Sato of the Imperial Japanese Army left Rabaul, on the northern tip of New Britain Island in the Coral Sea, for the interior of Talasea. His mission was to make sure that no wireless stations were left on the island, allowing the Imperial Army to launch an amphibious assault from Rabaul against Port Moresby in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, beginning in Tulagi. The invasion of Port Moresby was a stepping stone to attack northern Australia, knocking out her air power.
The Imperial Army was convinced of its absolute supremacy in the war of the Pacific. After the strike at Pearl Harbor, the flag of the Rising Sun had obtained easy captures of Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Java and Sumatra. The Western fleets had been crippled, and the Japanese military term "hakko ichiu", to bring all the corners of the world under common Japanese control, seemed possible.
April 8, 1942
The Japanese took Talasea. Imperial Headquarters planned to take Port Moresby, the big Australian air base in New Guinea, and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, where a sea plane base could then be built. The invasion would give Japan control of the Coral Sea and afford easy access to Northern Australia, where Allied buildup could be observed.
General Douglas MacArthur's intelligence units in Australia were keeping Admiral Nimitz and his staff, stationed at Pearl Harbor, informed of Japanese movement around Tulagi and Rabaul. MacArthur had a huge stake in the safety of Port Moresby. His plan was to move his troops back up the island chains, establishing Port Moresby as a stepping stone northwest to the Philippines as soon as possible.
April 30, 1942
Japanese intelligence found that the Americans had 200 first-line fighter planes in Australia. After five months of war, losing only a handful of ships, Japan had no fear.
The Japanese Port Moresby attack was called Operation MO. The landbased air force consisted of 150 planes, the carrier striking force had heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro, six destroyers, an oiler and the two big carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku which had participated in the raid on Pearl Harbor. The invasion force for Tulagi had six destroyers, which covered eleven transports, a number of converted minesweepers, two oilers and a repair ship, protected by a pair of light cruisers. The plan was to invade Tulagi on May 3, and Port Moresby on May 10.
During this time, American intelligence "Magic", for the first significant time in the Pacific war, knew that the Japanese were moving air power down from the Marianas and the Marshall Islands. Air attacks on Port Moresby and Tulagi were impending. All signs pointed to a major military operation to begin from the Rabaul area around the first of May. Admiral Nimitz knew that the carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku were in the Rabaul area and that the Japanese were amassing ships there. The American Pacific Fleet stood ready and alert, at the command of Admiral Nimitz.
On this date, the Americans were already moving 22,000 Army troops to New Caledonia, South of the Solomon Islands. North of New Caledonia, Efate in the New Hebrides Islands was occupied with several New Zealand warships and a handful of American destroyers.
The Japanese had anticipated that they would have some kind of naval battle before the Port Moresby landing. Their intelligence showed one American carrier in the area, they thought it was Saratoga, it was Fletcher's Yorktown. Admiral Inouye planned to entice the American naval units into the Coral Sea, and catch them in a pincers between the light carrier Shoho and its cruisers on one side, and the two fleet carriers, cruisers and destroyers on the other.
Nimitz was not to be caught napping. Admiral Fitch and his carrier Lexington were told to rendezvous with Admiral Fletcher and his carrier Yorktown west of the New Hebrides islands. MacArthur's navy and Rear Admiral J.G. Crace of the Royal Navy would contribute several cruisers. To these were added the American cruiser Chicago and the destroyer Perkins. Admiral Halsey and his two carriers were due in any day from the Tokyo raid; however, they might not make it in time. Nimitz was sure that Fletcher would find a battle in the Coral Sea.
May 1, 1942
The Australians knew that Japanese were headed to Tulagi, and they withdrew their small garrison before the Japanese arrival on May 3rd.
The task forces of Admiral Fitch and Admiral Crace joined up with Admiral Fletcher west of the New Hebrides islands in the Coral Sea. Fletcher, commander of Cruisers of the Pacific Fleet, viewed the aircraft carrier as primarily a ship which carried airplanes, but still a surface ship with fighting power. He was of the old school, those who viewed the carrier as a ship that needed fuel and must be ready to move in a moments notice. Fuelling and provisions were on his mind at all times. The ships assembled and stood by for fuelling to prepare for action; however, the great Battle of the Coral Sea was to be the first naval engagement in history in which surface ships did not exchange a shot. Dive bombers and torpedo bombers launched from carriers was the new face of battle.
May 2, 1942
MacArthur reported that the enemy was moving toward Tulagi. Fletcher hurriedly broke from the group, leaving Fitch and his force still fuelling. Fletcher rushed toward the Solomons to see what he could do. He worried that the Japanese might know that he was in the area because his scout planes had spotted and bombed a Japanese submarine the night before. Fletcher was lucky. That night when his eleven ships headed for the Solomons, the bad weather masked his presence.
May 3, 1942
The Japanese settled into Tulagi with no opposition, getting ready to build a seaplane base for the future. Construction troops with equipment went ashore and the Japanese chalked up another easy victory.
Fletcher was in the middle of the Coral Sea. He fueled again. His destroyers were standing by the oiler Neosho and topping off, one after the other, even as the Japanese soldiers, in their gray and green tropical uniforms, piled through the surf to the beach at Tulagi. At 7:00 that night, news of the Tulagi invasion reached Fletcher. The American force was badly fragmented. Fitch and Crace were heading for the rendezvous point 300 miles south of Guadalcanal island. Fletcher was alone, 100 miles off Guadalcanal, unready for any serious Japanese opposition. The loss of surprise that Fletcher had counted on seemed the worst thing that could happen.
May 4, 1942
Yorktown began launching planes into the rain squalls and winds of up to 35 knots. Waves of American dive bombers attacked Tulagi in the early morning. The Japanese gunners were inexperienced and their heavy fire proved inaccurate. The Japanese ships began to move out, heading north, back to Rabaul and safety.
Three Japanese seaplanes took to the air. Fletcher sent four of the fighters of the second strike air cover group to knock out the seaplanes. All three seaplanes were shot down. The Americans had met the enemy in open battle for the first time, they had missed a great deal due to the fogging of the windshields of the bombers, but they believed they had sunk two destroyers, a freighter, four gunboats, beached a light cruiser, and damaged another destroyer, a freighter, and a seaplane. The battle felt good.
May 5, 1942
Fletcher's Yorktown force steamed to meet up with Fitch's Lexington force and Admiral Crace's support group three hundred miles south of the Solomons. Two Yorktown fighter pilots had gone down and been rescued, and a ditched torpedo bomber had produced no survivors. It was time to regroup.
That night, Fletcher refuelled, and then headed northwest, estimating that any force preparing to attack Port Moresby would steam down from Rabaul. Fletcher was a clever seaman, but his primary aim was to continually prepare his ship for the onslaught of battle. While seemingly a logical desire, Fletcher would later undergo criticism as a result of his continual preparedness. In Washington, Admiral King berated Fletcher for fiddling around when he should have been hitting the Japanese harder. One month later, in the Battle of Midway, this criticism would come to fruition when Fletcher's deficiencies would cause him the loss of Yorktown and to be replaced by a younger seaman.
May 6, 1942
The Japanese sent a scout seaplane to confirm that an American force was moving northward. Aboard the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku the Japanese pilots were eager to battle to Americans; for six months they had been waiting to destroy the American carriers. The Japanese had become contemptuous of the weakling westerners. Their conquests thus far had been made with ease, and they considered no type of secret occupation of Operation MO. The enemies were heading toward each other.
Fletcher sent the oil tanker Neosho away from the Pacific fleet, with escort destroyer Sims, to be available in case they needed more fuel.
May 7, 1942
Zuikaku's planes were sent to search one area behind the Japanese carrier force, and Shokaku's planes were sent to search another area behind, to make sure that the Americans had not circled around and come up in the rear of the Japanese covering force.
The Japanese searchers in the eastern section of the zone spotted ships on the water. Japanese bombers began to close in. The ships were not the American carriers, but destroyer Sims and oiler Neosho. Lookouts on the Neosho spotted two planes, but assumed they were American planes checking on the safety of the oiler and her escort.
A Yorktown search pilot reported that he had found two carriers and four heavy cruisers. In response, the Lexington launched two fighters, 28 dive bombers and a dozen torpedo bombers, headed for the enemy 175 miles away on the northeast side of the Louisiade island group. Admiral Fitch committed his force, leaving only eight dive bombers on the carrier for anti- torpedo plane patrol. The report was in error. Two old light cruisers, a seaplane carrier, and three converted gunboats were what the search pilot had seen. Yorktown's search missed the Japanese fleet carriers altogether.
The fliers of Lexington and Yorktown, 93 in all, faced 9 fighters that the Japanese were able to throw into the air to defend the mistaken fleet. The Americans soon discovered strange defensive devices unknown previously: the Japanese planes were all equipped with smoke-making devices, so they emitted smoke when in a tight spot, causing their attackers to drop away. Another important discovery was made that day, the Japanese Zero's maneuverability was partly because of its light weight; however, the Zero pilot had no armored seat or even a self- sealing fuel tank. One well-placed burst of machine gun fire could kill the pilot or set the plane on fire.
The worst discovery made that day was that the American TBD torpedo bomber was agonizingly slow. Dive bombers were always miles ahead, and had to wait for the back-up torpedo planes. The circling dive bombers alerted the enemy, and if forced to go in alone, the full force of the high-low attack was severely weakened. Just a month later this slowness would prove fatal. In the Battle of Midway, the entire Torpedo 8 squadron, flying TBD's, would be slaughtered by zero's while attacking the Japanese carriers.
The Japanese light carrier, Shoho, was bombed and torpedoed from one end to the other. She was sinking. Six Shoho Zeros were still in the air. Two American fighters fell, and three of the six Japanese fighters were shot down, as well as the land- based scout plane that had come to help them. American fighters had been warned not to try to "dog-fight" with the more maneuverable Zero's, but to fly high, forcing the Zero's to waste fuel in an attempt to chase the Americans.
The Americans were jubilant. An America hard-pressed by a dismal succession of nightmare stories of surrenders in the Philippines, battles lost, and great ships sacrificed, was to hear the statement that would thrill a nation. R.E. Dixon, second in command of Lexington's dive bombers shouted into his microphone, "Dixon to carrier. Scratch one flattop," referring to the carrier Shoho. Admirals Fletcher and Fitch, fed information from Nimitz and MacArthur's intelligence, knew that the main battle had not yet even begun.
Sims took her first direct hit. In a half hour Sims was going down. Neosho, known as "The Fat Lady," shot down one of the Japanese dive bombers. The bomber pilot dove his plane for the deck, starting a flash fire which spread across the starboard side. Men from Sims were trying to get to Neosho, while many of Neosho's men were panicking and abandoning ship to the life rafts. Classified material was hurriedly destroyed. The Japanese were long gone as the rafts from Neosho were inflated and set afloat. No one knew how many men had leaped after them.
As night fell, the enemy fleet groups were nearing each other. So far, the Americans had erroneously attacked what they thought was the Imperial Fleet, and the Japanese had attacked an oiler and her escort. The Americans backed off, Admiral Fletcher headed southeast to wait for morning before attempting to continue the battle. The Japanese considered a night attack before heading north. Their mission was not to destroy the American fleet, but to cover the Port Moresby invasion force.
The crew of Neosho and those who had survived the attack on Sims were quiet while they waited for rescuers. Neosho had not gone down. Her position was frantically given by the navigator before all power was lost. Whaleboats filled with the crew rode the heavy sea, battling constantly to keep themselves from drifting from the side of Neosho.
May 8, 1942
The American shore-based aircraft had not sighted the Japanese carriers. Admiral Fitch, appointed to tactical control of the mission, launched a search of every one of the three hundred and sixty degrees around the Pacific Fleet's location.
The American task force had been sighted by the Japanese, who had been searching as hard for the enemy as had Fitch's pilots. The Japanese force had the luck of the weather on this fateful day, they hid under cloud cover. The Americans were in bright sunlight. The massive fleets would meet at last, and for the first time ever, carriers would fight carriers.
Yorktown launched 24 dive bombers, six fighters, and nine torpedo bombers. Lexington launched a comparable force ten minutes later. The day had formally begun. The cream of the American crop was meeting the cream of the Japanese crop. The pilots of Shokaku and Zuikaku were the most experienced of the war, they had participated in the raid on Pearl Harbor. Each force found the others mother ships, separated by 175 miles of sea, and delivered fierce attacks, far out of sight of their commanders.
Yorktown's pilots severely damaged Shokaku. 100 of her crew were dead, 50 wounded. Shokaku was one of Japan's beloved immense carriers. She and Zuikaku were licking their battle wounds at home during the Battle of Midway. Had these veteran carriers been present for that decisive battle, Admiral Yamamoto might have won, changing the entire course of events in the war of the Pacific.
THE DAY BATTLE
The Japanese Zero's and torpedo planes kept incessantly attacking the carrier Lexington. She was unlucky that day. Initially on takeoff one of the four fighters assigned to the protection of the dive bombers ran into the tail of another plane. Three more fighters got lost, and her torpedo squadron wasted valuable time flying around, failing to find the enemy. In the end, her few fighters were low on fuel and facing 20 Zero's. The Zero's took them down one by one. The carrier Yorktown was lightly damage. She had taken a great number of hits, but was salvageable. Her six months of repair work would be completed in three days at Pearl Harbor. She would fight in the Battle of Midway.
The Battle of the Coral Sea had taken place completely in and from the air. Torpedo planes dropped their blasts on enemy carriers while defensive planes and support ships fired on the enemy. It was the first Naval battle in which no ship on either side ever sighted the other. It went on all day.
American estimates were conservative. It was believed that one Japanese carrier had been damaged, but that the Japanese were still ready to battle. The Japanese, however, believed that they had won. They reported that two American carriers had definitely been sunk. In the first big carrier battle in the Pacific War and in all of history, the Japanese had tested their ability against that of the Americans, and they had prevailed.
One of the Japanese torpedoes that had hit the Lexington had actually ruptured a number of her gasoline tanks. Gasoline vapor seeped out of the bulging tanks. The generator room was a huge bomb waiting to explode. When it did blow, all communication was cut off and the Air Department of the ship continued to land its planes. Damage control parties were trying to stop the fire as the temperature jumped to 150 degrees.
Lexington asked Yorktown to land her 14 remaining planes still circling in the air. All personnel were shifted to the aft of the carrier.
All positions were abandoned, the ship lost all power. She was dead in the water.
The three destroyers Anderson, Hammann, and Morris circled the Lexington. Cruisers Minneapolis and New Orleans stood by to help if the great ship went down.
Admiral Fitch called down from the bridge, "Let's get the men off," this was the order to abandon ship. By 6:00 P.M. most of the 1200 officers and men were off the Lexington and aboard the destroyers. The total casualties of the battle against the Japanese and the battle against the sea were 8%. Fitch's decision to abandon the crippled ship was credited with saving some 2700 lives. Even Fitch's dog, wrapped in a life jacket, was rescued by one of the U.S. ships standing by.
The order to put an end to the Lexington rang out in the dark night. Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid said, "Detail one DD to sink Lexington with torpedoes, then rejoin promptly." The Lexington was bombed. She was a major loss for the Americans in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Believing that the Pacific Fleet had won a glorious victory over the Japanese, the Americans sadly watched the Lexington go down in her hour of glory. Flames slashed through the growing darkness. Admiral Fletcher willed her quick demise, worried at the thought of the Lexington as a propaganda prize for the Japanese if she continued to float. She did not.
With the death of the Lexington, Admiral Fletcher had been undecided whether or not he should stage a night attack against the Japanese. The answer came from Admiral Nimitz in Pearl Harbor, ordering Fletcher to retire from the Coral Sea. The fleet moved southward unaware how close they were to the wreck of Neosho and her desperately waiting survivors.
Admiral Inouye at Rabaul postponed the Port Moresby invasion indefinitely. Without Shoho and the badly injured Shokaku, he could not risk it. When Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, learned of Inouye's decision, he was furious. He ordered Admiral Takagi to return to the Coral Sea and wipe out the American forces immediately. Takagi headed back.
May 9, 1942
Admiral Fletcher was still ready to fight. The "New York Times" had called the battle a great American victory, estimating that 17 out of 22 Japanese ships were sunk. Fletcher's estimate was two destroyers, three cargo ships, four gunboats, one light cruiser, one light carrier, various gunboats and other small craft, and one light cruiser that had beached itself. The carrier Zuikaku had been slightly damaged, as well as one destroyer, another heavy cruiser, and the carrier Shokaku. Three torpedo bombers off Port Moresby and five sea planes, three patrol bombers, seven fighters, and fourteen torpedo bombers in the air had all been destroyed. In all, 144 Japanese planes and 5100 Japanese.
Fletcher knew what the American losses were: one carrier, one destroyer and one tanker sunk, and one carrier damaged. Fifteen Lexington planes had been lost in combat, and 35 had gone down with the ship. Sixteen Yorktown planes had been lost in combat. In all, the Americans had lost 66 planes and an estimated 543 men.
Admiral Takagi was searching for the Americans in the southern waters, but he turned southwest, which took him in the opposite direction. Both Takagi and Fletcher would be eclipsed at the Battle of Midway. Yamamoto blamed the failure of a decisive Japanese victory on Takagi, as Admiral King had blamed Fletcher.
The American destroyer Henley unknowingly headed for Neosho. The men of the oil tanker, along with the survivors of her escort, Sims, had struggled to hold on for two long nights and days. Just when the Henley was almost upon the Neosho, a report that an enemy carrier was just ahead, caused the Commander to turn away to miss the carrier. The Henley moved back from the Neosho at fifteen knots.
May 10, 1942
Slowly, the Neosho was sinking. It was time to abandon ship. Funeral services for the dead and passing food and supplies to the men in the surrounding whaleboats had been taken care of. A buzzing from the sky could be heard. An Australian Hudson was spotted. The men prayed that the Australian would communicate with MacArthur, and he with Pearl Harbor, so they would finally be rescued.
The destroyer Henley had turned around and was once again steaming toward the last reported position of Neosho at twenty knots.
Despair plagued the men of Neosho once again. They did not know if the ship would hold up through the night. The men aboard the rafts were dying one by one. There was no reason why the Task Force should not have reached them by this time, unless the wrong position was given by her navigator.
May 11, 1942
The Henley at last reached Neosho. 109 survivors of Neosho and 14 survivors of Sims went aboard. 21 men had died. Neosho was unsalvageable, and was bombed and sunk by Henley at 2:28 P.M.
On the face of it, the Battle of the Coral Sea appeared to be a victory for the Japanese. The Imperial Navy had sunk one American fleet carrier and damaged another, sunk an oiler and a destroyer, while losing only Shoho and a large number of planes, and suffering severe damage to Shokaku and enough damage to Zuikaku to keep both out of the war for several months. It was a tactical victory for the Imperial forces. However, the battle was a strategic victory for the Americans. The Coral Sea meant the end of Japanese expansion southward. They would never again threaten Australia and New Zealand.
The significance of the Battle of the Coral Sea was that the Americans had foiled the occupation of Port Moresby and the knockout of Australian air power. These were necessary before carrier strikes by the Japanese against Australia. In a few weeks the Americans would land on Guadalcanal, and the Japanese would eventually be driven out of the Solomon Islands after months of attrition warfare. There would be no more expansion, bases, or victories for Japan. Although both forces withdrew simultaneously, the Japanese had two less carriers for the Battle of Midway, and erroneously believed that the Americans had lost the Yorktown. Just as important was Admiral Yamamoto's determination to wipe out the American Fleet in the wake of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The American people must be convinced that the Japanese could not be defeated. Desperate for victory, the Japanese were marching down the road of defeat.